The Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the United Kingdom has new survey data demonstrating that drug usage jumped and then dropped between 2020 – 2022. It is possible that Covid might have played in these fluctuations. It can be difficult to draw conclusions from just one study, and doctors and healthcare officials often try and avoid doing so. This is especially the case since the ONS data is drawn from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and are therefore not actual national statistics.

However, we do see lots of other data in the UK and around the world also showing that more people consumed illicit drugs when Covid hit. For example, in June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to Covid. As the American Psychiatric Association points out, overdoses also spiked during the pandemic. In addition, the ONS numbers essentially went back to normal in the year ending June 2022. So, overall, it is reasonable to conclude that the dislocation, trauma, isolation, and extra free time people experienced during Covid led to an increase in illicit drug use.

And this leads us to the fact that drug misuse is a serious problem across the US and around the world, so it’s important that we continue to look for new ways to tackle it and hopefully improve people’s lives. I see that the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council now advocates for the decriminalization of cannabis and cocaine, in hopes of extending nationwide the warning and treatment policies being piloted in some local areas of the country. In effect this will mean moving people directly to addiction services instead of prosecution (although dealers will still be prosecuted). Some information indicates that these pilot programs have been effective at lowering reoffending rates and saving police time.

I’ll be watching this possible policy change closely to see if it is implemented successfully on nationwide scale and if other countries follow the UK example. Drug treatment is a crucial tool to reduce drug abuse, so this could be be an important learning.

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